Busting the 100% productivity myth: great(ly exaggerated corporate) expectations

A post on LinkedIn recently addressed the issue of expectations for delivery of a translation project. The suggested timeframe provided for a single translator to translate a website of approximately 25,000 words was approximately 1 week. The responses of other linguists generally fell into two distinct camps: firstly, the that’s-no-way-near-enough-time camp, and secondly, the it’s-no-wonder-translators-are-losing-out-to-MT-if-they-are-that-slow camp. Fence-sitters would probably fall into a how-long’s-a-piece-of-string camp – which is a justified argument – as the subject matter was unclear.

Currently there are more “famine” than “feast” posts from freelancers. (N)MT and LLM-based translation form a two-pronged attack that are affecting human translators. Industry-side evangelisers sometimes claim that MT more content translation than human translators can translate. Even if this is the case, there is still a diminishing wedge for human translators.

Since 2022, I have regularly seen posts about translators being reduced to post-editors of Machine Translation. The rates do not reflect the true amount of effort required to bring translations up to standard. Which in turn leads to a drop in motivation. It isn’t realistic to expect the same service for a living rate as a dumping rate.

100% productivity is corporate settings: an illusion

In the modern data-driven world, we are incredibly IT-dependent. Updates need to be done, and they don’t always happen overnight, during lunchbreaks etc. I’ve previously covered why I schedule my return to work to allow me to start with a home office day: with a “soft logon” the night before. Unless you user blocker appointments, you are bombarded with mails, calls, Teams chats etc. And all this eats into your productivity – particularly if you consider your day like a game of Tetris.

As I pointed out to one comment about the 25,000 words in a week, which suggested 100% productivity in the corporate world, this is a fallacy. Time and activity tracking frequently sanitises out “Tür-und-Angel-Gespräche” with colleagues, lunchbreaks that overrun, online calls that start and end late. Full calendars are seldom a sign of productivity in their own right. There are also “meetings that could have been a mail” and continuous calls are draining. I now maintain better call discipline – sticking rigidly to the intended call length, and excusing myself from over-running calls.

Is human productivity the issue?

Returning to the how-long’s-a-piece-of-string issue, about productivity and its effect on translation output, it is clear that there are unreasonably high expectations on productivity. As a translator, you might have a “straightline top speed”, but for how long can you maintain it for? And does the ride remain comfortable, or do things straight to rattle or get uncomfortable. When I went in house, to try to gauge my output, I set myself an original 1,500 words a notional daily output. A 1,500 word document to translate from scratch can reasonably be expected to be sent back by the end of the day,

Would I start translating the second I got into the office? Rarely. Unless an item has come in the previous evening and I had set up the project the previous evening. It might be necessary to perform some alignments, concordance-based terminology work, or (re)read the legislation. Sharing an office means inevitable phone calls and distractions. I often work with noise cancelling headphones when the office is fully occupied. When I have a lot of short tasks I use desktop timers to keep moving between the tasks.

6 out of 8, or 8 out of 10?

If I am lucky, I get about 6 hours (out of 8 hours) undisturbed translation time a day, and would have to go at a steady 250 words an hour to do 1,500 words in that 6 hours. As translation memories and termbases grew, “plain vanilla” translations became a lot quicker. Filler tasks like translating investment warnings are now practically automated. The translation task mainly involves locking a few segments and a quick check of the output and a bit of formatting.

Consequently, I have been able to increase my notional daily output to 2,000 words, but the added 500 words a day reflect a number of factors:

  • I do considerably less terminology work. Now it is frequently ad hoc rather than in dedicated terminology sessions.
  • I also have read-only translation memories containing bilingual alignments of European law at my finger tips, allowing me to spend more time in Trados Studio than I previously did.
  • Better screen setup means reference materials open on a second screen, a glance away.
  • I have a very narrow subject focus – at its broadest, my subject matter is financial market supervision, but predominantly focussed on banking supervision. There are very few supervisory procedures that are genuinely new. I have occasional forays into insurance and Pensionskassen supervision, securities supervision or banking resolution.
  • Regular expressions for QA have helped reduce cognitive (over)load.

Despite such “efficiency” improvements, achieving 8 hours’ pure translation productivity still requires working for over eight hours. Changes in daylight conditions also need considering. However, mature TMs also have drawbacks – which is why I have looked into better use of segment penalties, and terminology can also change over the years.

Barnes’ Iron Triangle applied to translation

As I alluded to in a previous post about imposter syndrome affecting translators – and how I banished by early career doubts, unrealistic expectations from customers are a genuine problem. For translation, the holy trinity of specifications consist of price, quality and time.

triangle showing quality, price and time,  to illustrate Barnes' Iron Triangle.

Explained simply, it goes like this. You want a high quality translation? You’ll either have to pay a premium rate (i.e. price is high), or allow more time for the translation. You want a quick translation? You’ll either have to pay a premium rate (i.e. price is high due to needing translators to work extra hours, or in a team) or sacrifice quality. You want a cheap translation? You either sacrifice quality (e.g. review processes, terminology checks, coherence checks) or have to wait on delivery.

The AI hype and the genuine advances in machine translation have pitted the industry against the professionals. There is a different playing field in the age of NMT and generative AI. There has certainly been a big leap since statistic MT was in its heyday. You have to therefore manage your customer’s expectations (explain what you do – e.g. explain that you use CAT and not (N)MT), and what the expected delivery time is.

Managing expectations.

I’ve always believed in expectation management (a skill you learn as a parent). Back in 2016, along with recurring daily work, we had most substantial relaunch of my employer’s website to date. Eight years on, there are still regularly new pages and posts, and the workflow has proven itself. I had to work to a fixed deadline for go live, at the end of an intense month (including work trips to London, Zagreb and Nuremberg).

The project allowed me to also educate colleagues/customers about realistic expectations, while also changing the translation workflow for publishing directly to the website. Now, with backend CMS access. I extract texts from the source view in the CMS and open the files in Trados Studio. I could translate pages as they successively went live in the testing environment. That approach eliminated dealing with multiple versions of the same page or post as Word files. Agreeing on a top-down approach allows prioritisation of certain content for translation. This ensured handling top level content child pages/posts first, and steadily working through subpages.

For multi-day projects, I explain how to involve me before a final version of the document exists. This approach is particularly useful for multiple iterations of a text. It also helps to allow more translation time – PerfectMatch helps to overcome document iteration issues. Naturally, I do also make sure that I allow a slight buffer, and early delivery is easier than having tight deadlines.

Ultimately good customer communication is key – keep they updated about progress – maybe check in with them partway through the project – possibly the earlier the better. Try to group questions about terminology or wording suggestions together rather than a constant trickle of questions.

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